Music and the Celtic Otherworld

pan_400hDr Karen Ralls-MacLeod

From Ireland to Iona


“This is a fascinating study of an important and neglected theme in Celtic literature and religion. Meticulously researched and sensitively written, it highlights the importance attached to music in both pre-Christian and early Christian Ireland and Scotland and its particular association with the Otherworld.”

Dr. Ian Bradley,
St. Andrews University,

Cover design: Fionna Robson
Cover image: ‘Pan’ by Phoebe Anna Traquair.
Reproduced with kind permission of the National Gallery of Scotland.

Celebrating the diversity of indigenous nations, cultures and religions, the essays which comprise this volume discuss the musics performed by a wide variety of peoples as an integral part of their cultural traditions. These include examinations of the various styles of Maori, Inuit and Australian Aboriginal musics, and the role of music in Korean Shaman rituals.

Indeed, music forms a key component of many such rituals and belief systems and examples of these are explored amongst the peoples of Uganda, Amazonia and Africa. Through analysis of these rituals and the part music plays in them, the essays also open up further themes including social groupings and gender divisions, and engage with issues and debates on how we define and approach the study of indigeneity, religiosity and music.

With information on available recordings, and including a CD of music from many of the traditions represented, this is a book which gives readers the opportunity to gain a richer experience of the lived realities of indigenous religious musics.


  • Preface and Acknowledgements
  • Special Tribute to the late Dr. Alan Bruford, School of Scottish Studies, Univ. of Edinburgh
  1. Introduction: (the philosophy of the spiritual dimension of music; Plato, Ficino, the Renaissance, Church Fathers, early Christian beliefs about music and its perceived power; cross-cultural comparisons, Prof. Jocelyn Godwin and his research; scientific and medical research on music and sound; extensive details on the Celtic sources and beliefs about music, including material from medieval Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, etc.)
  2. Performers: (Celtic Christian saints, angels, archangels, sidhe-music of the fairy world – e.g., the Dagda, Cascorach, Cnu Deroil, Finn mac Dumhaill, Lugh, Midir, Manannan, Aillen mac Midhna, fairy women of Cruachu, Fer-tuinne mac Trogain, Uaithne, Noisiu, Senbecc; Bran, severed heads, stones, deadly pipers of Sid Breg, mermaids, elves, devas, birds, tylwyth teg, Breton corrigans, etc.)
  3. Instruments: (voices of angels and archangels, voices of Christian saints, monks, and nuns; harps that mysteriously play by themselves, harps played by Christians or fairies, timpan, fiddles, bagpipes, trumpets, horns, pipes, bones, whistles, bells by Christians or fairies, the musical branch, Pictish carnyx, mysterious music yet no performers seen, etc.)
  4. Effects: (the “three strains”, joyful, melancholy, trance-like sleep, to teach/inspire, Christian saints’ blessings/cursings by use of music; St. Michael shape-shifts into a musical bird; healing; relaxing or tranquil effects; to increase prosperity; dangerous or deadly effects; music in warfare, prophecy, music used to summon an animal or person; protective; talented mortal musicians `abducted’ by fairies or angelic beings; fairy blessings or curses bestowed on mortal musicians; Irish king hears heavenly music; etc.)
  5. Places: (Christian Heaven as inherently musical; churches, monasteries and abbeys as musical centres; hermit monks’ cell; Paradise or Otherworld(s) as inherently musical; the Land of Promise, Avalon, Land of the Saints; Land of Youth, Tara, Iona, musical island paradises at sea; St. Brendan’s journey; courts of a king; site of fairs and festivals; battlefields, nobleman’s house; hills, mounds, rivers, lochs, mountains, wells and springs, underwater fountain, well of Connla, trees, oak groves, cairn, stone circles, etc.)
  6. Times: (eternal music of Heaven or Otherworld dimensions; mysterious music heard at moment of a saint’s birth or death; canonical hours; Judgement Day, during Mass or Vespers; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, twilight, midnight, dawn, dusk, continuous music of the birds, trees, and fishing nets; the earth itself as always being inherently musical or harmonic; etc.)
  7. Conclusion: (Overall summary of research findings; analysis of sources and their contexts–Christian or pre-Christian; theologians’ and philosophers’ research about the spiritual dimension of music through the centuries; anthropologists’ perspectives; taboos about music; music and shamanic traditions; the troubadours; scientific and medical research about the effects of classical music; summary of the Celtic aspects of this complex and universal topic.)
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index


“an authoritative and accessible book on the spiritual dimension of music”
The Scotsman newspaper
March 2000

“a fascinating topic that Ralls-MacLeod (Celtic and Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh) succeeds in introducing through various source texts… this study provides a solid introduction to an interdisciplinary topic that will be of interest to scholars of Celtic culture and folklore as well as medieval Irish music. Recommended…”
Teresa M. Neff, Boston University
Library Journal (USA)
May 2000

“this book really is a must.”

“carefully and skillfully highlights the spiritual dimension of music from both a Christian and pre Christian perspective … the bibliography at the end of the book is substantial.”
Dalriada magazine
May 2000

“The influence of music in the Celtic world is paramount… Dr Ralls methodically explores the tradition”
“There are many interesting side-lights… and the bibliography ensures that the reader has access to an extensive source”
RILKO Journal
Spring 2000

“Judging from this book, her complete study must be a formidable one… offers a clear explanation of the relationship between music and the Otherworld… an encyclopaedic volume of references”
Issue 7
(supports Ancient Quest)

Softcover / Hardcover